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  • Jarod Contreras

50 Years of Academy Rangers

Updated: Aug 1, 2022

August 1, 2022 — For 50 years Philmont’s Service Academy program has seen cadets and midshipmen of the United States military academies arrive at the Ranch for a three-week leadership experience. Stepping out of a military context, Philmont provides these cadets and midshipmen with the opportunity to develop their leadership skills in a real-world arena. Plus, for some, their time at Philmont is one that changes their life.

Academy Rangers pose for a photo in front of the Tooth of Time.

The two most involved military academies are the Air Force Academy, in Colorado Springs, and the Naval Academy, in Annapolis.

The Air Force Academy pioneered the program in 1972 and has long held the closest relationship with Philmont for the program. In 1980, General David Goldfein, who was Chief of Staff for the Air Force from 2016-2020, served as an Air Force Academy ranger.

Both the Air Force Academy and the Naval Academy send roughly 30 cadets or midshipmen each who serve as rangers and about five returning members who serve as the groups’ ranger trainers. Once at the Ranch, they are taught and led by two service academy coordinators, a position within the Ranger Department that serves as a liaison between Philmont and the academies.

“It truly is their first opportunity to lead and inspire a group of people,” said Kyle Knoll. Knoll served as a service academy coordinator from 2012-2018.

For the cadets and midshipmen, their three weeks at Philmont are part of a busy summer schedule that consists of many other trainings and responsibilities. Knoll said he has been told by many of the more than 450 Academy Rangers he has led over the years that Philmont was the most powerful leadership opportunity they experienced.

While in school and in their military careers, the cadets and midshipmen can depend on a chain of command that will be available to guide them out and away from mistakes.

However, at Philmont as rangers, they are often on their own. They are responsible for their crew in an austere wilderness setting, forcing them to make decisions and form a plan entirely on their own. The power of this experience holds great weight for these cadets and midshipmen of leadership.

Ben Haugh, a midshipman going into his junior year at the Naval Academy, served as a ranger this summer. Haugh went on a 12-day Philmont trek in 2017.

Leading people is something Haugh has always wanted to do, so attending the Naval Academy has been a dream come true. However, Haugh said he also wanted to return to Philmont. Being selected for this year’s crop of academy rangers was an honor, Haugh said.

“Going out to Philmont and working with these Scouts is a very exciting and laid-back way to test out your leadership style,” Haugh said.

Air Force Academy ranger trainer, Anna Fournaris, gives a trailhead talk instructing her crew on map and compass skills on July 11, 2022. Photo By Chase Ensz.

Haugh admits that he spent his time on his own trek focusing on other things rather than being present at Philmont. When the opportunity to return this summer became a reality, he said he promised himself to journal, take more pictures, read, hike and to generally be present during his Philmont experience.

“Philmont is a sanctuary. That place is so precious, and it’s almost untouchable,” Haugh said.

Reminding Haugh’s crews of the importance of being present was a staple technique of his. Learning how to further develop your personal leadership style is a hallmark of the experience of any Philmont ranger. It is especially true for academy rangers who must return to an environment entirely built around leadership.

Haugh said one of the biggest lessons he learned from his time at Philmont was patience. He needed patience to reteach a topic time after time if participants were not understanding it, for example.

In the time he spent with the three crews he took out, Haugh said he realized the greatest privilege of his time as a ranger was the opportunity to teach crews more than just backpacking skills. He said he cherished the opportunity to share his perspective on college applications or on his favorite bands. Looking back on the three weeks Haugh spent on the Ranch, he said that he hopes to return one day, either on staff or as an advisor.

“Everybody comes together to protect the sacred ground that is God’s country,” Haugh said.

The process of learning inherent to being a ranger applies to more than just those taking out crews. Stuart Hahn, this year’s service academy coordinator, said he is grateful for the impact the academy rangers have had on him.

“It’s crazy as you’re training cadets and midshipmen how much they can change your life too,” Hahn said.

Hahn said the job is an important responsibility and one that doesn’t come without challenge. Given that the cadets and midshipmen are only at Philmont for three weeks at a time, Hahn said getting good at saying goodbye becomes an important skill for the coordinator.

“They’re kind of figuring it out, getting in their groove of how they want to teach the stuff to their crews and then they leave,” Hahn said.

Service Academy Ranger Tori Salvador and Andrew Schaeffer prepare to raise bear bags on their training trek at Philmont Scout Ranch in Cimarron N.M., on July 12th 2022. Photo by Chris Nye.

However, Hahn said the sadness of those many goodbyes is balanced by the great pleasure of getting to see these cadets and midshipmen be shaped by Philmont.

The service academy program attracts both those who have been on trek at Philmont before and those who have never backpacked before. Hahn said getting to watch as these cadets and midshipmen learn that they’re capable of more than they thought they were is part of the magic of the job.

“Really, at the end of the three weeks or so that they’re here, they’re like, ‘this is the best small unit leadership that I’ve gotten in my time at the Academy,’ and that says a lot about Philmont,” Hahn said.

Robert Wettemann teaches history at the Air Force Academy. He is one of the coordinators of the program at the academy along with Col. Thomas Swaim. Wettemann echoes the impact that Philmont has on the cadets.

“[The cadets and midshipmen] all want to come back. Not all of them will be able to,” Wettemann said.

Wettemann, who worked as a program counselor at Beaubien in 1992, said he sees the cadets fall in love with the Ranch, as so many who walk these lands do.

“It gets into your heart. It gets into your soul. It becomes a part of who you are,” Wettemann said.

For the 50 years that cadets and midshipmen from our country’s military academies have been serving at Philmont Scout Ranch, it seems a common theme that echoes through the decades is the depth of impact that can be had in those three short weeks.

Haugh said it is important to remember the Jack London quote he thought of often while at Philmont.

"The proper function of man is to live, not to exist. I shall not waste my days in trying to prolong them. I shall use my time.”

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